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Éire-Ireland 41.1 (2006) 142-168

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Maureen O'Hara:

Pirate Queen, Feminist Icon?

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Figure 1
Maureen O'Hara in At Sword's Point (1952). Courtesy of Maureen O'Hara.
[End Page 142]
For most moviegoers, the name Maureen O'Hara is indelibly associated with sharp images of lush Technicolor swashbucklers starring the fiery, red-headed, Irish-born actress. While a leading lady who excels so nobly at this athletic genre may be tremendously popular (as indeed Maureen O'Hara has been), it is well-nigh impossible for such a screen type to become a superstar.
Parish 643

Maureen O'Hara's screen career is shot through with contradictions. Her popular reputation, as James Parish reminds us in the quotation above, rested on a series of roles in a genre that until recently had fallen into obsolescence. (The successful commercial releases of Mask of Zorro [Martin Campbell, 1998], The Man in the Iron Mask [Randall Wallace, 1998], and Pirates of the Caribbean [Gore Verbinski, 2003], all starring high-profile Hollywood actors, suggest that the swashbuckler may have returned, if not to mass-market appeal, then at least to popular consciousness.) Although it might seem that the swashbuckler deserves critical re-appraisal—particularly from the perspective of feminist film studies—it remains remarkably under-theorized. O'Hara has, however, long been championed by feminist theorists, although on the basis of two productions, Dance, Girl, Dance (Dorothy Arzner, 1940) and The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952), out of an oeuvre that numbers more than sixty films for cinema and television. For many critics and film historians, O'Hara's career is inseparable from those of John Ford and John Wayne where it often seemed that she was little more than a foil for [End Page 143] a series of narratives devoted to exploring a damaged masculinity. Even in her late-life comeback in Only the Lonely (Chris Columbus, 1991), O'Hara's dramatic function is to provide the impediment to her son Danny's (John Candy) proper oedipal development.

Maureen O'Hara's persona ought to fit comfortably within the paradigms established by her peers—Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth, Bette Davis—of strong women who challenged a constricting patriarchy, both on and off screen. Like the heroines of film noir and melodrama, O'Hara's roles beg to be analyzed for their strengths rather than their weaknesses, for the force of her resistance to the dominant order, rather than for her eventual capitulation to it. That this has not happened may be ascribed in part to critical neglect of the swashbuckler, the genre in which O'Hara shone. It also certainly is a consequence of the whiff of conservatism that O'Hara's public persona generated. Her friendship with arch-conservative John Wayne, her much-publicized refusal to drink or, as Parish puts it, "pose for sexy cheesecake" (653), and her rather glacial beauty all hinted at a refusal to embrace the supposedly democratic values of Hollywood and, beyond it, America.

In this essay, I argue that it is exactly O'Hara's problematic status as a feminist icon that makes her so fascinating, and that this in turn is bound up with the extraordinary games of dominance and submission, role-play that extended beyond the limits of the cinema screen, that mark her career and her life. Specifically, I trace the intersections between O'Hara's on- and off-screen persona, bearing in mind that (auto)biography is just one of many narratives—the others include screen roles, studio publicity, the discourse of fandom, and all types of journalism—that coalesce to create a star image. Further, in relation to the swashbuckler, I argue that Maureen O'Hara traversed the binaries of West/East, active/passive, masculine/feminine in a manner that was ultimately containable within a discourse committed to upholding those binaries. In film after film, she participated in a masquerade of gender and ethnic identities that opened up a space for female, as much as male, viewing pleasure.

Promoted by Hollywood as a feisty Irish colleen...


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